Book review: The Psychology of False Confessions



The Psychology of False Confessions
Professor Gisli H Gudjonsson CBE
Wiley (2018)
ISBN 9781119315674

Gisli Gudjonsson has enjoyed a most remarkable career. He is the world’s foremost expert on the science of false confessions, has given evidence on the subject in numerous landmark cases both in the UK and other jurisdictions and has been responsible for the development of the law in this field, as reflected in the many revisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Codes of Practice, in which he had such a significant hand. His work is invariably cited in forensic psychological reports which address issues concerning fitness to plead and susceptibility to false confession.

The book is partly autobiographical and catalogues Gisli’s personal history and his involvement in various notorious cases – the ‘Birmingham Six’, the ‘Guildford Four’, the ‘Tottenham Three’ (Raghip), Judith Ward, Pendleton, the ‘Cardiff Three’ (Miller) and many others. He summarises the gestation and fruition of the science and law which now reduces the risk of evidence of what may be false confession being relied upon too readily. The majority of the text, however, focuses on his involvement in two 1974 Icelandic assumed murder cases and his contribution to the appeals (and eventual exonerations) of the five convicted defendants.

Gisli’s route to international eminence commenced with the Icelandic Police, where he worked as a part-time constable in Reykjavik in 1973 and later as a detective with the Criminal Investigation Police. It was during his time in these roles that the seeds which gave rise to the principal focus of the book – the disappearances and presumed deaths of two young men and their consequences – were sown, coming to eventual and dramatic fruition 44 years later.

‘It used to be thought that save in the case of the very obviously disturbed, people did not voluntarily confess to crimes which they had not committed’ (letter to the author from Tom Bingham when Senior Law Lord, 26/09/07). In his early days as an expert witness Gisli was hampered by this mindset in his efforts to persuade judges and juries that an apparently convincing confession might be built on straw. But time passed and his reputation grew. Gisli has, single-handedly as a forensic expert, greatly enhanced the reputation of the England and Wales criminal justice system worldwide and, over 35 years, revolutionised its forensic psychology landscape.

Much of the earlier passages in the book (Part I) reiterate and expand upon the contents of Gisli’s previous published works, notably ‘The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions, a Handbook’ (John Wiley and Sons, 2003). These comprise a useful and authoritative description of the development of the learning and science which he has made his own unique speciality, accompanied by the fascinating histories of many of the most notorious cases in which, both as a defence and prosecution expert witness, he has been involved

But it is Gisli’s exposé – the bulk of the text (Parts II-III) – of the Reykjavik assumed murders, their background, the wrongful convictions of the five defendants based on questionable and inappropriate interrogative techniques, the long road to their ultimate vindication, Gisli’s dogged and commendable determination to put right Iceland’s most memorable miscarriage of justice and his highly significant role in the quashing of the convictions – following, in another irony, the book’s publication – which provides its most intriguing elements and makes it read as an extraordinarily compelling work of true crime drama

Set against a lifetime of remedying injustice, this is Gisli’s swansong. It is exquisitely ironic that after spending much of his career achieving his ambitions in other jurisdictions he should have returned to the country of his birth, with a population of 340,000, to correct a miscarriage whose origins date back to when he set out on his chosen path as a young man.

Police investigators, judges, fact finders and legal practitioners must always be aware of the potential fragility of suspects’ confessions, however superficially plausible and convincing they might appear on initial consideration. This book explains why and should be mandatory reading for all professionals involved in the criminal justice system. 

About the reviewer: Anthony Heaton-Armstrong is a barrister at Foundry Chambers.

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Anthony Heaton-Armstrong

Anthony prosecutes and defends in cases involving allegations of serious sexual assault and has written extensively on dislosure issues. He is one of four joint editors of Witness Testimony in Sexual Cases, OUP.